Group criticizes response to discrimination allegation
A local anti-racism advocacy group is calling a Calgary-based energy company’s recent response to racial discrimination allegations “disturbing.”
Athabasca Oil Corp. (AOC) issued a response Tuesday following the distribution of an anonymous letter that alleges the company has been discriminating against people of colour in their hiring and firing processes.
In the anonymous letter, sent to various media outlets, Mayor Naheed Nenshi and other government officials Monday, the author claims AOC has been favouring white employees over people of colour in recent layoffs.
The letter goes on to itemize instances of people of colour being let go in favour of white employees, and notes that all members of the company’s leadership team are white, posing the question, “was there no opportunity to promote a (person of colour)?”
According to the AOC website, all members of their board of directors — six men and one woman — are white.
On Tuesday, AOC issued a news release saying they were “disturbed” by the letter, going on to defend the employment decisions, saying they “believe that each of these decisions were made based solely on tenure, performance, position, project requirements or other business factors.”
AOC then notes that the board of directors has struck a “special committee of directors to oversee this matter,” by engaging third-party experts to conduct a review of policies and practices “especially as they concern potential issues of unconscious bias and racial discrimination.”
Jason Devine, spokesman for the Calgary Anti-racist Action group said the company’s response is “deeply distressing” for a number of reasons.
“I think one would have to be severely naive or consciously lying to think that for some reason any aspect of the oil and gas industry wouldn’t be infected or tainted by racism,” Devine said.
Calgary Anti-racist Action was formed in 1988 to fight all forms of racism, but works specifically on “going after hate groups, detailing them, exposing them and confronting them,” and acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
“In all honesty, I find (AOC’S response) frankly, pretty puerile. Maybe 10 years ago the bare minimum was to say, ‘We don’t like racism, racism sucks’ but the bar has been raised and it can go a heck of a lot further to say, ‘Well, not only does racism suck, but we admit it exists,’” he said. “That letter is really just pro forma.”
Devine added AOC’S response doesn’t include any specifics about the committee or its mandate.
“It doesn’t say who is on this committee, it doesn’t give metrics of what the committee is supposed to do and look at ... so there’s zero transparency.
“Further, it’s disturbing that before they even mention this committee, they state they believe that every one of those things mentioned in the letter comes down to skill, so automatically at the beginning they say, ‘We don’t believe any of this happened here,’ so they just prejudiced their own claims to do anything about it.”
AOC CEO Robert Broen said the company is “not taking issue with the facts” but that an independent third-party review is needed to fully address the concerns stated in the letter.
“We’ve been transparent with our employees so I’ve shared our response with them to make sure they’re aware of it and, frankly, we believe in the integrity and decency of our management team,” he said. “We want to keep an open door to make sure we hear feedback and have an avenue for employees to talk either with management or human resources if needed.”
Broen said the committee has been formed and consists of two board members who will assist in a review, but couldn’t speak to a specific time frame or any organizations that AOC has reached out to for assistance in the review process.
When asked about a lack of diversity on the board, Broen said “the board recognized they don’t have the expertise to do a review like this so they need to seek assistance.”
In response to some of Devine’s comments, Broen said the review is intended to identify any “potential issues that may exist.”
“And this includes the potential for unconscious bias and also ... we would look not only at the specific recent examples provided in the email but the broader context of decisions that were made over the last few years,” Broen said.
Devine said, generally, any organization that’s looking to make change needs to first admit there’s a problem and then approach it from a bottom-up, not a top-down way.
“They have to look at what people on the ground are actually doing, what processes actually work,” he said. “They’d have to be up front and transparent and if they don’t include, in a very real way, the thoughts, the considerations and the demands of people impacted, it’s meaningless.”